#100WomenNovelists of the 20th Century: Arundhati Roy

Blog Post 10: The God of Small Things (1997)

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May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. the rivers shrink and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun. 

Re-reading ‘The God of Small Things’ after twenty years was a delight, though a delight tinged with poignancy. The story is still unspeakably sad, maybe more so on a second read. But the sadness is shot through with humour and the most beautiful use of language.

The novel is set in Kerala, in southern India, and moves back and forth between two time frames, 1969 and 1993. The story charts the decline and fall of a wealthy Indian family and is largely narrated by a seven year old girl, Rahel, who is one of the ‘two egg twins’, the other being her brother, Estha.  Their mother, Ammu, a Syrian Christian, divorced from their father, a Bengali Hindu, is forced to return home to Kerala to live with her mother and a collection of comic yet grotesque relatives. The story is set against a unstable, complicated political, racial and religious landscape – the Caste system, Communism, Catholic traditions, a post-colonial mess – and Rahel and Estha are bombarded with all these competing influences.

Ammu and her twins are also in a precarious position at home. The family who strongly disapprove of the divorce, despite them never wanting her to marry the Hindu in the first place, treat them as inferiors. Ammu is depressed and stifled and seeks solace in the arms of an Untouchable, Velutha, the family’s gifted carpenter. This messing with the ‘Love Laws’ has catastrophic consequences.

What is most striking about this book is the language. Roy has such a fresh voice, full of the weight of all these cultural influences. She uses those famous mid-sentence capital letters, quirky rhymes, unexpected tongue twisters, sensuous descriptions, repetition. The prose might be dense but this is a very accessible novel. However, it would be wrong to read it quickly; you have to savour it.

The structure too is surprising. The opening reminds me of ‘Rebecca’ and the narrator’s dream about returning to Mandalay and finding it overgrown and dilapidated. Both novels jump around in time and the reader must piece together the information to work out what exactly has happened. The narrative here starts with a little girl’s funeral, then weaves back and forth until we see more clearly the events that led to her death and its repercussions. Roy shows us, tells us, that things can change in a day, ‘a few dozen hours can affect the outcome of whole lifetimes. And that when they do, those few dozen hours, like the salvaged remains of a burned house — the charred clock, the singed photograph, the scorched furniture — must be resurrected from the ruins and examined. Preserved. Accounted for.”

And this is at the heart of the novel. You must grab the small things as these moments of joy are fleeting. Life in its bigness can be too overwhelming. Rahel says: ‘…only the Small Things are ever said. The Big Things lurk unsaid inside.’

The secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don’t surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover’s skin. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don’t. In the way that although you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won’t. In the Great Stories you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn’t. And yet you want to know again. That is their mystery and magic.

‘The God of Small Things’ won the Booker Prize in 1997, remarkable for a debut novel. I am looking forward to Roy’s second novel, finally published twenty years later, ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’.

 

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